Despite an unlikely 14-0 lead inside the first three minutes of the contest, Utah dropped to 0-2 in conference play after losing 38-28 to No. 13 ranked USC Thursday night.
On the second play of the game, USC quarterback Matt Barkley looked to be dropped for a loss before Ute defensive lineman Nate Fakahafua stripped the ball away from the quarterback and took it eight yards for the Utes' first score of the game.
A perfectly scripted start was made better when three plays into the next drive, Utah's Star Lotulelei recovered a USC fumble, giving the Ute offense the ball at the USC 13. Jon Hays and his Utah offense immediately took advantage, taking two plays to score after a Ken Scott touchdown pass was awarded after a fairly lengthy review.
What most thought would be a low-scoring affair turned into a surprisingly entertaining, but penalty-laden shoot-out. Far less entertaining for a frustrated Utah team which went into the fourth quarter down just 24-21after several miscues by both squads.
After the quick start, Utah would score again at the 8:54 mark of the second quarter on a Hays to DeVonte Christopher hook-up from 18 yards out, putting Utah up 21-10.
From that point on, however, the Ute offense shut down completely, held scoreless for the remainder of the game before a throw-away Kelvin York touchdown with :38 remaining in the contest.
Once the fourth quarter hit, Heidari was no longer needed, as USC quarterback Matt Barkley took over, demonstrating why he is a legitimate Heisman contender.
Barkley hit favorite target Marqise Lee for an 83-yard bomb early in the fourth to put USC ahead for good. The long-ball was a career long for both Barkley and Lee, and capped an impressive night for each, and put the Trojans up 31-21.
USC field goal kicker Andre Heidari, normally dependable, missed two field goal attempts in the contest, allowing Utah stay in the game and keep momentum with a fired-up home crowd, which apparently impressed national media, by all accounts.
The Utes were, at times, impressive defensively and just as often, lucky. However the game is perceived, while USC didn't play its best game, the Utes certainly had their chances and went away feeling like they let one slip away.
"We were two plays away from winning that game. The screen, and the 83 yard touchdown," said Ute running back John White. "We thought we had the formula and we fought to the end, and it just wasn't enough to win the game."
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei acknowledged his team's mental letdown.
"We did a bad job, I think we were kind of thinking we had the game under control," he said. "We kind of settled, so to speak. We did kind of a bad job in that. We should have kept fighting."
Among the many missed opportunities were the multitude of inexcusable penalties committed by Kyle Whittingham's team, which set the Ute offense back on several critical downs and/or kept USC drives alive that had otherwise broken down.
However, with 27 penalties in the game for a combined 222 yards, the officiating was poor and adversely affected both teams throughout the game.
"How about that? You know what? I never complain about it, but 27 penalties in one game? Give me a break," said Whittingham. "Let the kids play. That's all I'll say. Not good, or bad officiating, just let the kids play."
Demonstrating just how quickly things can turn in college football, just three short minutes later, USC would strike again with a defensive touchdown by Trojan corner Nickell Roby, who stepped in front of an ill-advised Jon Hays pass. Roby rumbled 38 yards untouched to put the dagger into the heart of the Utes, and its vocal home crowd.
"I just pressed on the third down on the screen. I should have burned it. I didn't see the nickel back, and I was just trying to get over the D-lineman's head," " Hays recollected. "I just have to burn that ball, the defense will get a stop and we're right back in it."
Barkley would finish the night with impressive 23-30 passing for 303 yards and 3 TDs, while Lee lit the Ute secondary up for 192 yards on 12 catches.
Conversely, Hays finished with 160 yards on 19-32 passing, two TDs and one interception on the night. Running back John White, who had been the Utes' offensive workhorse last season got only 13 carries for 68 yards and a 5.2 yard average.
With an increase of passes in the Utes' second conference loss, some questioned whether or not the Utes abandoned the run game, as evidenced by White's noticeably smaller number of carries. Prior to his injury, White had rushed no fewer than 24 times in the 2012 season.
Whittingham addressed the question post-game, stating that he was comfortable with the mix between pass and rushing plays in the loss.
"We know we need to throw the ball a bit more. That was evident in the last three ball games," he observed. "We were more productive in the rush game, but not as productive as we need to be, we did a lot better job tonight running the football."
With Thursday's increase in average yards per carry Thursday, it's difficult to argue with the logic, however Hays' 32 passing attempts may be a bit on the high side, as the passing efficiency certainly took a hit this week. The numbers indicate that the coaching staff may yet be looking for the exact formula that may fuel the Ute offense.
Wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, who had his best game of the season with 62 yards on five catches and one touchdown, acknowledged as much in his post-game comments.
"We just played to our strengths tonight, we just had a new scheme on offense. We went to more spread this game. We didn't have a lot of time to practice, because we were basically doing half-spread and pro-style offense through most of fall camp and in these first three games," revealed Christopher. "Just this past week, we switched things up a lot. You only have so many hours that you can practice in the week to get those base plays down, especially when you're making a change in the whole offensive scheme."
With myriad offensive line issues and injuries, Thursday's rushing game was a bright spot, and a marked improvement from the ASU performance, where the Utes' running game was virtually non-existent.
The offensive line, which has been under fire all season long, bounced back from consecutive dismal performances and allowed only one sack all game, though Hays was under pressure at points in the second half in particular. Utah put up just 209 total yards in their blow-out loss to Arizona State, but was able to improve to 304 against the 36th ranked defense in the nation.
Though refusing to call it a moral victory, Whittingham, while disappointed with the loss, is taking away a lot of positives from Thursday's loss.
"I thought our guys were ready to play. We came out with a lot of emotion and energy, and I thought they battled hard the entire way," he said. "It's 24-21 going into the fourth, and when you play a game of USC's caliber, that's what you hope for, is to go win in the fourth quarter. We didn't get it done and they made more plays than we did."
Looking ahead, Whittingham acknowledged that his team has a tough road ahead, and has made things more difficult for itself.
"Bottom line is that 0-2 in conference, and we've got our backs to the wall just like last year. It doesn't get any easier with UCLA next week. We'll continue to fight, that's all we can do," he said. "These guys will. They'll hang together and keep fighting."